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Friday, June 14, 2024

Theatre review: Outside Mullingar rises above its predictability

Romantic comedy explores love (and death) in the Irish midlands

One thing is for sure, the payoff in act two of John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar will have you buzzing as you leave the Pacific Theatre.

But even as this Irish romcom’s final moments play out in beautifully unexpected ways, you also realize this is no Doubt, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea or Moonstruck.

Set in rural Ireland, Outside Mullingar tells the story of Anthony and Rosemary, two middle-aged farmers about to inherit their individual family farms. With the farms set side-by-side, they have known each other all their lives.

While Rosemary holds a grudge for a petty incident when they were children, she has also come to realize Anthony is her soulmate. She has every expectation the two would live out the rest of their lives together. Anthony isn’t so sure.

In Shanley’s moody Irish Midlands, the downpours are as frequent as death. By the start of the second act the body count almost outnumbers the actors who have appeared on stage. But while loss plays a major role in Outside Mullingar, it is also very much about the inevitability and celebration of life.

Don’t confuse moody with serious though. For while death does coming knocking there is enough humour, much of the black variety, to balance it out.

Shanley’s lesson, where the possibility for true love comes only when we are willing to expose ourselves completely, is a tad sentimental and cliché. What elevates this story is in the surprising way in which he gets us to that conclusion.

To arrive at the final destination though is sometimes like wading through a familiar Irish bog on a particularly bleak night; while you may know the final destination and the how to get there, it is all a bit tiring.

Rebecca deBoer and John Emmet Tracy find love among the midlands in John Patrick Shanley's Outside Mullingar. Photo by Jalen Laine Photography.
Rebecca deBoer and John Emmet Tracy find love among the midlands in John Patrick Shanley’s Outside Mullingar. Photo by Jalen Laine Photography.

John Emmet Tracy is absolutely mesmerizing as Anthony. There is an ease and vulnerability to his performance which helps to make his late second act admission wholly believable and endearing. Unafraid of taking a moment, he also finds clarity in Shanley’s wordy text. As a master of understated movements, Tracy uses them to accentuate the action rather than showiness.

Rebecca deBoer has a tougher time through much of act one in finding the same balance. She is not helped by a decision to tamp down the fiery Irish lass who sees much of her life’s vision slipping away. She fares much better in a superior act two though, with a wholly believable acceptance to Anthony’s secret.

Ron Reed and Erla Faye Forsyth provide good support, and much of the humour, as the aging parents. Reed is particularly good here, mining the petulance of age and misguided disappointment of a father. When paired with Tracey in what turns out to be a farewell scene, the emotions are genuine.

Blessedly, all four handle their Irish accents with ease.

Director Angela Konrad makes the most of Pacific Theatre’s traverse stage although for a play with such emphasis placed on the land, there is more space given to interiors than one might expect in Carolyn Rapanos’ set. The final scene also causes a moment of disorientation as there is little to distinguish the interior of Rosemary’s home in act two from Anthony’s in act one.

Lauchlin Johnston gets to have fun with darkly moody lighting punctuated by a near perpetual rain storm, complete with thunder and lightning. When the sun finally does make an appearance it is as glorious as Anthony’s admission. Julie Casselman gives an appropriate Irish flavour to her sound design, although it would have been nice to hear it used in more.

If it weren’t for Shanley’s unexpected turn in act two and Tracy’s winning performance, Outside Mullingar may never have taken full flight like some of the playwright’s previous works. Thankfully though it pays off in the end, leaving us with the realization that any sting from revealing one’s true self can still lead to love.

Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Angela Konrad. A Pacific Theatre production on stage at Pacific Theatre (1440 W 12th Ave, Vancouver) until June 10. Visit for tickets and information.

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